Untanking the standings
An idea to dissuade also-rans from getting lotto fever
Posted: Tuesday March 11, 2008 5:43PM; Updated: Friday March 14, 2008 5:19PM
And ... they're off!
Way off, in fact. Off the pace, off the charts, off the radar and off the rails, though definitely not off the chain or off the beaten path (they get beaten a lot). When the Heat announced Monday that Dwyane Wade was being shut down for the remainder of the season to rehabilitate his aching left knee, that essentially was the starting gun for the NBA's annual tanking season.
Shot across the bow? More like a shot across the Stern, as in another opening salvo of something that always makes Commissioner David rather cranky.
Wedged in late in the regular season and before the postseason, tanking season is one of the league's repeat embarrassments, like that annoying uncle who talks too loud and drinks too much yet cannot under any circumstances be dissuaded from coming to holiday dinner. Tanking season is the time of year -- right now, tanks to Heat coach and president Pat Riley, among others -- when good players sit, benched players play, rookies get trusted as if they were veterans, injuries swell in number and severity like the price on your gas pump and the clumsiest player on the roster starts to think he's Steve Kerr, Reggie Miller or Peja Stojakovic.
Worse, the head coach must think so, too, judging by the green light he gives the guy for threes.
Tanking season is the NBA's shadowlands, played out where the fewest eyes generally are watching. While teams near the top of the conference standings vie for the best possible playoff position and those in the next tier elbow for the most advantageous seeds, the clubs participating in tanking season do so before an increasingly disinterested fan base. Good thing, too, for the fewer witnesses, the better.
See, it's not easy to lose on purpose -- which, after all the above tiptoeing, is what tanking season is all about. Teams that engage in it tend to be as graceful as power forwards performing Swan Lake, their open secrets ever so evident in the active lists they submit shortly before tip-off, in the minutes doled out that night by the coach, in the plays run or in the mistakes now oddly tolerated.
We have seen it all, especially in the past two tanking seasons. We saw Celtics coach Doc Rivers shelve his best players as a 16-point lead disappeared down the stretch of a game against Charlotte. We saw the Bucks stricken, against all odds, with sudden knee soreness to 60 percent of their starting lineup. In Minnesota, we saw Mark Madsen get medieval on Memphis from the three-point line, his 0-of-7 too horrific to watch, yet strangely, too compelling to turn away from. Funny, too, how Kevin Garnett, a virtual rubberband man of resiliency for 12 years, somehow couldn't gut through minor boo-boos the final half dozen games or so, two tanking seasons in a row.
By the final five or six weeks of the season, we have as many teams with good reasons to lose as there are teams with good reasons to win. When the schedule syncs up, that makes it easy for all involved; one wins, one loses, two go home happy. But when you find yourself stuck with a pair of aspiring losers more dedicated to hoarding Ping-Pong balls or preserving lottery-protected draft picks than making the playoffs, it can be like watching two overly polite people holding doors open for each other and going nowhere for 48 minutes. After you. Oh, no, I insist, after YOU!
"It's a system that favors teams not to win games,'' former 76ers president and general manager Billy King said last spring. "I think anytime you have a system like that, it's not good for the league.''
What's to be done? Till now, there was little anyone could do beyond shining very bright lights on the worst transgressors, while waiting for NBA headquarters to offer a fix. We're still waiting, though, and since the Keith Van Horn-outta-mothballs scam last month at the trading deadline, we're not even sure tanking season is job No. 1 on the league's loophole list.
But, hey, that's why we're here. The NBA has not announced any formal policies for curtailing the practice of winning-by-losing, and Stern appeared pretty blasÚ about the whole smelly situation last June, after the Trail Blazers and SuperSonics jumped up in the draft lottery, finishing 1-2 to thwart the chicanery of the Celtics, Grizzlies, Bucks and others. That, ironically, fueled new conspiracy theories about the league, with the most vehement accusers convinced that the NBA rigged the lottery to punish teams that rigged various games. (And to think this was all before Tim Donaghy's happy headlines.)
Fortunately, there is hope: In lieu of a sniff committee assigned to every mediocre (and worse) team down the stretch, we forward a plan devised by three wise men out East that, mathematically, could untank the NBA standings.
A Dartmouth grad turned Boston educator, an astronomer from Columbia and an eager student of their acquaintance have tweaked and re-tweaked what, for lack of a catchier title, they call the Draft Position Playoff.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. We know what you're thinking: A single-elimination tournament of the teams that don't qualify for the legitimate postseason, playing off to see which is the best of the worst? No thanks. But that's not it. The world doesn't need two NIT tournaments, anyway.